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Health: Free meal in free time

01 May 2015

Churches are signing up to tackle holiday hunger, discovers Christine Miles

Hungry work: Children at St John's MakeLunch "kitchen" in Farley Hill, Luton, pick the toppings for their muffin-based pizzas, helped by parents, and volunteers from the church and community

Hungry work: Children at St John's MakeLunch "kitchen" in Farley Hill, Luton, pick the toppings for their muffin-based pizzas, helped by parents, an...

AT 11 a.m. on 27 May, children and their families will pile into the church hall at St John's, Farley Hill, Luton, in time for activities and lunch. Many will come back once a week during the summer holidays, too.

St John's opened its MakeLunch kitchen in October 2013. The aim of this church-led network of kitchens is to provide food for children who might otherwise go hungry during the school holidays.

"The first aim for us was to address the problem of child poverty on the [Farley Hill] estate; the second, which came later, was to address community cohesion - and it's worked," says Katja O'Neill, whose husband is the Priest-in-Charge at St John's.

The 2013 school census shows that there are currently 1.3 million children registered for free school meals (not including Key Stage 1 pupils who also receive free school dinners); but the charity Child Action Poverty Group lists 3.5 million children (one in four) as living in poverty. Although the state is committed to providing one hot meal a day during term-time for eligible children, in the holidays there is no such guarantee.

MakeLunch kitchens are currently run in 50 other locations across Britain: in church halls, community halls, or on school premises, and all are staffed by church volunteers.

The director of MakeLunch, Rachel Warwick, an ex-primary-school teacher, says that the catalyst behind the initiative was a TV documentary in June 2011 about poverty in the UK.

"The programme featured several kids talking about the fact that they get free meals at school, which can be the only meal a day that they get. But, in the school holidays, that provision isn't there for them.

"It felt like a really obvious thing churches could do: we're pretty good at making food, and we've usually got the facilities. So, the idea was to open churches up in the school holidays, and continue the meal provision that kids are relying on in term time."

The first "kitchen" was opened by a Pioneer ordinand, Nik Stephenson, in Oakley Vale, Corby, Northamptonshire. "We had no community building, so we bought a gazebo and served between 15 to 20 kids a day over the whole of the six weeks," Mr Stephenson says. Fifty-one churches are currently on board, including five Anglican churches; and, last year, MakeLunch fed just over 11,503 meals to 2620 children.

"Churches contact schools in their community, and leave it to the schools to invite the right families. Some kitchens feed the kids and their families; some just the kids. Some kitchens that are more established put on activities, too; or have brought in some entertainment, perhaps a clown; or a local animal shelter brings in some animals."

Churches are not required to commit for every holiday. "We ask churches to do what they can. If a church can manage only one day a week, it's better than nothing. Similarly, there are six weeks in the summer holidays; but, if they can do only one week, then do one week. Let's start with what we have got, and do something; it's a kind of loaves-and-fishes thing."

The basics of what's needed is at least eight willing volunteers per day. "If you've got a church building, that's great; or, if you've got people who are willing to volunteer, but no facilities, we can usually help you work out the rest. It's possible to partner with other churches." Individuals can contact MakeLunch, too, and can be partnered with a project.

MakeLunch provides suggested menus and recipes, and churches commit to meet the same standards as school dinners: that is, nutritionally balanced meals that include protein, carbohydrate, milk and dairy, and fruit and veg.

"But, within those guidelines, kitchens decide what they cook," Mrs Warwick says. "That might be to do with what food is available, what donations they've had, what they enjoy cooking, or what local partnerships they've developed."

A partnership developed by a MakeLunch kitchen in Oswaldtwistle, for example, has led to an Indian restaurant's cooking a meal for the children once a week; in Kidderminster, a MakeLunch kitchen has developed a similar partnership with a fish-and-chip restaurant.

"We've had free school meals since the '70s; so we have to assume that, if they needed that provision, it creates a problem in the holidays. If you feed the kids in school, you've got to think about what they're eating when they're not at school.

"There are lots of reasons why people find themselves in poverty. Whatever those reasons are, it's never the children's fault."

Mrs Warwick's hopes for the future are two-fold: "One is that there'd be a kitchen available for every child who needs it in the holidays. Our other hope is that we could use the stats and the stories to campaign for change.

"Perhaps this would become something that the Government would provide, or that benefits could change to acknowledge that the cost to families during school holidays are higher than the cost during term time, because the current system doesn't acknowledge that."

The report Feeding Britain, published by the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty in the UK, suggests that it would cost in the region of £130 million to continue the provision of free school meals during school holidays.

For now, however, interested churches can get in touch with MakeLunch through its website. To register as a MakeLunch kitchen costs churches £150 for the first year, which includes all training and printed materials.

All registered MakeLunch kitchens receive access to corporate partnerships, and to micro-funding provided through the Cinnamon Network.


Hungry holidays

An extract from the full review of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty in the United Kingdom:

"In a major study on the feeding of schoolchildren, M. E. Bulkeley wrote a century ago that:

'The discontinuance of the school meals during the holidays has been shown to undo much of the benefit derived during the term time, and it entails unnecessary suffering on the children. . .

'The experiments made by Dr Crowley at Bradford in 1907, and by the Medical Officer of Health at Northampton in 1909, not to mention the testimony offered by numbers of teachers as to the deterioration of the children physically during the holidays, prove conclusively the need for the continuation of the meals, if the children are not to lose much of the benefit which they have derived during term time.'

"Yet, 100 years on, there are some poor parents who dread the coming of the school holidays, and particularly the summer holiday, when their children cannot gain free school meals."

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